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3 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A Disturbing Novel, May 28, 2009
This review is from: Days of Atonement: A Mystery (Hanno Stiffeniis Mysteries) (Hardcover)
Days of Atonement: A Mystery

Gregorio, Michael. Days of Atonement [Minotaur, 2007]
Set in the times of the French occupation of Prussia, early 19th century (1807) by Napoleon's army. Three children are found gruesomly murdered in an out-of-the-way house in a small town. The mother is missing, later a body is found, thought to be her's. It appears that the father, a Prussian officer, died too in mysterious circumstances in an army outpost. The murders are investigated and rumours are spread of Jewish ritual killings. Leading characters are a Prussian `procurator' and a French officer, who investigate the murders. Much is gruesome in the story. It appears, however, that the father, a devoted Prussian officer, was actually Jewish (and somehow was involved, in the past, in unwittingly causing his own parents' death, following his commanding officer's orders) who came to view the French as harbingers of emancipation. With him being seen as disloyal by his fellow soldiers, his death is brought about in a military camp in a cruel hunt. Subsequently, his wife, in despair, kills the children- with some ghoulish ritualistic elements. The novel, in indicating the harsh environment and hostility to Jews, no doubt wishes to evoke an understanding and sympathy for the Jews' plight- but the cruelty and violence in the deaths, involving both parents, leaves a bitter taste. This depicting of the Jew in a terrible plight and as a victim- and, at the same time, a perpetrator of terrible violence- is exactly where the problem lies. The novel is written by someone who clearly knows little of his subject and is unable, or makes no effort to describe how Jews really lived or thought in that period. The danger of this is that the gratuitous violence, ascribed to Jews too, or connected with them, in a sense perpetuates irrational fears and prejudice, even if unintended. Towards the end, in an unexpected twist, it appears that the mother remained alive (and that the body that was found was of some other unidentified person) traced in an odd way by the French officer. The procurator's wife, who had seen the mother before the murders, is called upon to identify her but though she recognises her, she decides not to confirm her identity so as to protect her. In the novel, Jewish life is not described- and what is disturbing about the novel, besides its ghoulishness, is not just the idea of such murders, but also that a modern author wishes to present Jews of the past in such a way and in such circumstances- when he clearly has no idea of Jewish life, neither then nor now. Thus, despite a `sensitivity' to the Jewish plight that the novel wishes to convey, by its enhancement of the irrational fear of the unknown, the Jew, by ascribing to Jewish characters terrible and perverted acts of murder, by its inability to convey Jews and Jewish life in a real, accurate context, one is left, disturbingly, with all the ingredients of a latent anti-semitism, however much the author may not have wished this to be so.

David Schonberg
(compiler- An annotated bibliography of Jewish historical novels)
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Location: Jerusalem, Israel

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